Following in Murie’s footsteps

March 14, 2018 GMT

When Eric Cole walks out his front door a couple of miles down the road from Miller Butte, he’s greeted by a scene that’s at the center of his professional life: a prairie, mountains and the wildlife that roam between.

Cole, who’s the National Elk Refuge’s staff biologist, is tasked with helping refine the scientific body of knowledge that underpins an elk herd and a sweeping rangeland that are icons of Jackson Hole. It’s a role steeped in history, and it puts him in the company of biologists he reveres and learned under.

“I’ve been here a long time and I think I’ve done some important work,” Cole said, “but I’m just really building upon decades of work conducted by some extraordinary biologists that have been here in the past.”

To name a few: Olaus Murie, Buzz Robbins and Bruce Smith, who was a mentor early in Cole’s tenure on the refuge.

“From a professional standpoint, I try to conduct my work as if Olaus Murie was watching me,” Cole said. “That’s served me very well here.”

Growing up in a blue-collar family in rural western Massachusetts, Cole’s path to spending a career researching the Jackson Elk Herd was unlikely. His folks both worked factory jobs, and higher education and branching away from home were not part of the family history.

“I’d probably win an award for farthest-traveled family member,” Cole said.

In the late 1980s, at age 18, he tipped his hat to a “deep military family tradition” and enlisted in the U.S. Army.

“I grew up hearing stories from relatives who fought in World War II,” Cole said, “and that made a powerful impression on me.”

The four-year stint in service was spent stateside and in Europe mostly during peacetime, and was formative, teaching him the “camaraderie of shared misery” and the “importance of teamwork and confidence.” But it was sort of type 2 fun, and a career soldier he was not.

Cole’s first inkling to work in natural resource management had come by the time he reached high school. He was an outdoor zealot as a kid, walking out his front door to catch brook trout, explore the woods and play ice hockey on frozen beaver ponds. An influential high school teacher, Robert Lauber, steered him toward wildlife biology.

After wrapping up the tour of duty he stayed on the path, attending the University of Massachusetts-Amherst with a tuition waiver courtesy of the Army. He took fondly to the curricula, conducting independent studies that looked at how deer density influenced forest regeneration in one of the wildest reaches of southern New England. Knowing he needed a master’s degree to get where he wanted, the next stop was a research assistantship at the Oregon Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit.

By his mid-20s Cole was studying Roosevelt elk in the Oregon’s coastal coniferous rainforest, investigating how road closures affected the big-bodied elk (with fewer roads, they fared better). Looking back, he doesn’t romanticize the research, which started off with a year straight spent in the field: “It was very difficult. Very steep, very thick vegetation, and it rains most of the year.”

The American West was all new to him, and its open spaces and diversity were compelling. He got into steelhead fishing, hunted for elk and hit the road when he could to learn the land. “In Oregon I was impressed that you could travel five hours and be in completely different ecosystems,” Cole said. “You could travel from the rocky coast, through the coastal rainforest, to the Cascade mountains to the high desert.”

Cole worked a few short-term jobs, researching spotted owls at one juncture, before his thesis advisor took a fortuitous phone call after he’d spent six years in Oregon. It was 1998, and on the other line was a certain U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-run wildlife refuge in northwest Wyoming, looking to hire a year-round biological technician.

“I accepted without thinking too much about it,” Cole said, “or knowing anything about Jackson Hole.”

Initially he viewed the refuge as a waypoint on a larger journey, and was doing as much grunt work as biology. But, a few years in, Cole was promoted to junior biologist. Then Bruce Smith retired, and Cole took over and dug in.

When asked his interests outside of work, Cole starts off with genealogy and history, instead of the usual outdoor pursuits a Jackson Hole resident would list. It’s a curiosity that dates to his youth, and over the years has dredged up some interesting discoveries: His great-grandmother was the illegitimate daughter of a Scottish woman; His great-great-great-great grandfather, Nathaniel Cole, killed his brother in a knife fight.

Cole’s a family man, and with his wife, Susan, is raising 2-year-old and 6-year-old sons at a standalone refuge-owned house that’s just south of the road to Curtis Canyon. Living out in the sticks seasonally surrounded by elk has its perks, but isn’t exclusively idyllic. He has to plow his way out in the winter, and he — like the general public — is barred from using the land immediately around his home recreationally.

Now a 15-year refuge veteran, Cole stays inspired by reminding himself that what he’s learning is important and relevant and will affect management of the land well into the future — just as Murie’s work paved the path for him.

“My best days are when I’m out in the field seeing interesting things,” he said. “My worst days are when I’m dealing with unhappy people — but I suspect all my predecessors had to deal with those things as well.”